The Land of the Thunder Dragon, nestled in the eastern Himalayas, is an exciting place to dine. Renowned for their fiery, chilli-based flavors, Bhutan’s culinary staples include ema datshi, a spicy stew of cheese and chillies, and distilled rice wine ara. From Swiss food in the hills of Bumthang to the bars of bustling capital Thimphu, here’s our guide to ten of Bhutan’s best restaurants.
For a taste of authentic Bhutanese cuisine, book a table at the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant. Opened to enlighten visitors about Bhutan’s rich food culture, the restaurant sources the best seasonal, organic ingredients in the country and prepares them using the traditional cooking methods of bygone Bhutan. The colorful, authentic setting complements the food perfectly – guests sit on cushions around a low table and eat from handmade wooden bowls, as Bhutanese custom dictates. The extensive menu, which boasts 60 vegetarian dishes and over 100 meat dishes, features such Bhutanese fare as khuli, a pancake made from buckwheat, kekti kewa (spiced baby potatoes) and ja sha maroo, a dish of minced chicken. Perfect washed down with a glass of ara, a local rice wine.
Visitors to Bhutan would be hard-pressed to find a more opulent dining experience than Bukhari, a lavish restaurant at hotel Uma. Bukhari, a uniquely semi-circular space, takes its name from the traditional Bhutanese fireplace that dominates the beautiful restaurant. A short ride from Paro, Bukhari resides on a hill overlooking the town, with stunning views of the surrounding valley. Indonesian chef Dewa Wijaya, who has years of culinary experience, has created an exquisite menu of both local and international fare – inspired contemporary food with a distinctly Bhutanese twist. Expect imaginative dishes like grilled Angus sirloin steak with sweet onion, Bumthang Gouda and herb butter or pan-fried snow fish with eggplant, quinoa and fennel salad.
Ambient Cafe is a favorite with tourists and expats, or ‘chilips’ as they are locally known, this modern and stylish cafe is located in the center of capital Thimphu, overlooking its buzzing main street Norzin Lam. The welcoming, spacious and cozily lit cafe is decorated with comfortable cushioned wooden armchair seating and a ‘take one, leave one’ book exchange shelf where guests can trade in their old books for new. Guests rave about the cafe’s collection of freshly brewed coffees and teas, while the banana milkshake offers a cool, refreshing alternative. The menu is simple and mostly western in flavor, with a range of salads, sandwiches, cakes and pastries to choose from.
The restaurant at Hotel Galingkha sits in a prime location on Dondrub Lam overlooking the main street’s busy southern traffic circle – the perfect place to see Thimphu’s white-gloved traffic police in action, famously reinstated after the city objected to the introduction of traffic lights. Situated on the ground floor, Galingkha restaurant features indoor seating and a charming patio area complete with a Feng Shui waterfall and a traditional Bhutanese gate of welcome with beautiful wood-carving detail. The multi-cuisine menu offers an array of dishes from continental to Bhutanese, Indian and Chinese, with Indian dishes like butter paneer masala and creamy, lentil-based dessert dal halwa enjoying great popularity.
Chig-ja-gye is located within the luxury hotel Taj Tashi, a beautiful building which mixes traditional Bhutanese dzong architecture with contemporary, stylish flair and offers stunning views over the surrounding Thimphu valley mountains. Chig-ja-gye is no different – gold-leaf paintings and decorative dhungs, traditional trumpet-like instruments, are contrasted with modern seating and furnishings, while Buddhist prayer wheels can be seen from the restaurant’s windows. Chig-ja-gye gets its name from the 108 earthly temptations in Buddhism that a person must overcome to reach nirvana, among which are gluttony and greed – perhaps ironic considering the wealth of traditional Bhutanese dishes on offer. A meal at Chig-ja-gye wouldn’t be complete without trying ema datshi, widely regarded as Bhutan’s national dish, which is a fiery mix of chilli peppers and cow’s-milk or yak cheese.
For a dose of modern Bhutanese history while you dine, try the Swiss Guest House, nestled on a hillside just outside the town of Jakar in the Bumthang Province. The original building, a small, traditional farmhouse, was once the home of Karsumphe Angye, the older sister of Gangsa Ugyen Wangchuk, the first king of Bhutan. Later, in the 1970s, the house acted as headquarters for the country’s Dairy and Forestry Project which employed a number of Swiss nationals, earning the place its name. The guest house is run by a Swiss-trained cheese maker and a range of Swiss dishes are available served in traditional chalet-style surroundings. Opt for a hearty cheese-based dish, like fondue or raclette, bratwurst or zuri gschnatzlets – diced veal with mushrooms and cream.
Baan Thai offers a great alternative to Bhutan’s abundant native cuisine. Situated in busy central Thimphu, this airy restaurant serves authentic Thai cuisine with a dose of Siamese hospitality. Fresh and locally sourced produce is transformed by an experienced Thai chef into perfectly seasoned and authentically spicy dishes. Choose from dishes like vegetable spring rolls, som tam (green papaya salad), tom kha gai, a coconut-based chicken soup, or sweet and sour pork with jasmine rice. Insider tip: Baan Thai’s window-side tables give spectacular views across the bustling city.
A quiet retreat away from busy Paro, Olive restaurant at Nak-Sel Boutique Hotel and Spa resides in the remote Ngoba village, eight kilometers away from the town. The eco-friendly and energy-efficient hotel is a community project built using native and locally sourced materials, with much of its furnishings crafted in Ngoba Village. The hotel boasts a picturesque stream and waterfall running through the property and breath-taking views of Jomolhari, a Himalayan mountain that sits on the Tibet-Bhutan border. Olive serves Bhutanese fare with continental flavors such as the specialty dish kewa datshi, a curry made with potatoes and cheese, and the yak burger with spicy homemade mustard, watercress salad and potato wedges.
Established in 1997, Hotel Ghasel overlooks the very heart of Thimphu, the lively Clock Tower Square, which is a popular meeting place and cultural venue. The hotel restaurant serves a good-value, all-vegetarian menu of Bhutanese and Indian food, and was the first vegetarian restaurant to open in Thimphu. Recently renovated, the restaurant has a policy of serving only the freshest organic food and the usual, expected fare like pakoras, parathasand vegetable curries. The vegetarian thali(a selection of various small dishes, usually including rice and chutney) and masala dosa, a pancake made from rice batter and black lentils with a spicy potato stuffing, are definite favorites at Ghasel.